Reedist Karen Sharp: On the Low End


Karen Sharp’s latest album was recorded in a single day.

(Photo: Monika S. Jakubowski)

Michelle Obama probably wasn’t speaking to alto and soprano saxophonists as she declared, “When they go low, we go high.” And certainly Karen Sharp didn’t take it as a musical directive. But the fact is that the British tenor and baritone saxophonist does prefer the lower depths, musically speaking. This, among other stylistic elements, is evident on her latest album, The Sun, The Moon And You, slated for release in the U.K. this spring on Trio Records.

Sharp loves melody, whether composed or improvised, as reflected in her relaxed and natural phrasing. Rather than zoom upward, her solos often wind downward, despite Obama’s advice. “I just love the lower sounds,” Sharp admitted. “In an ensemble, I love playing the bottom end.”

It took her a while to reach this epiphany. Growing up near the North Sea coast in Suffolk, Sharp initially studied classical music. By the time she entered the Royal Northern College of Music, though, premonitions of her segue into jazz could be discerned, particularly as a composition teacher encouraged Sharp to analyze the repertoire harmonically, as if sketching a lead sheet.

More significantly, Sharp began playing saxophone at 16, when another teacher lent her an alto. “And he made me a compilation tape,” she recalled. “It had Al Cohn and Zoot Sims’ ‘You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,’ some Lester Young and a lot of other stuff. I’d play along to it in my bedroom until I had a moment when I somehow got how the harmony worked. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ It was my first taste of what it was like to improvise.”

Having made that connection, Sharp began realizing she felt drawn more toward instruments below the alto range. Dexter Gordon’s tone became a guideline of sorts as she switched to tenor. She also absorbed the sound and feel of Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz in his lower range. Later, having graduated and launched her professional career, she went lower still, when Humphrey Lyttleton hired her to replace Kathy Stobart in his band. Since Stobart’s baritone was a hallmark of his arrangements, Sharp added one to her arsenal.

Much of her post-Lyttleton work involved collaboration with pianist Nikki Iles, whom she first heard in Manchester on a job with bassist David Green. Both of them join her on The Sun, The Moon And You, with drummer Steve Brown rounding out the lineup.

“Dave is in his mid-70s going on 20,” Sharp said, smiling. “He and Steve go back a long way together, too. And Nikki is amazing, really good fun. Where she comes from musically really suits me down to the ground.”

It took just one day for them to record the new album, with no more than two takes on any track. From the rubato intro to the drums-and-tenor first half-verse on “Get Out Of Town” to a loving interpretation of Ron Carter’s “Little Waltz” and on to “Iris,” an Iles original that she and Sharp previously recorded, arrangements basically were inspired during the session.

Sharp’s calendar includes upcoming gigs with various groups throughout Europe; for now, shows in the U.S. exist only on her wish list. But with luck, that might change. On her priorities list, for this one, she goes high. DB

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